Remembering Yang Song: Wife, daughter, New Yorker, and victim of criminalization

November 30, 2019

Two years ago, during a raid on the Flushing massage parlor where she worked, 38-year-old Yang Song jumped from the building’s third-floor window, rather than face the vice officers who were running up the stairs. Yang died at New York-Presbyterian Hospital the following morning.

Yang Song had been arrested months before on prostitution charges. Her case was referred to the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs), and a court date had been scheduled for December. Hyphen magazine’s interview with Yang’s family following her death confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted while in police custody.

An officer had confiscated her money and her phone and then demanded sexual services. An immigrant working in a criminalized industry, Yang felt powerless to refuse. She bravely reported the assault to the local precinct and helped them identify the police assailant.

This victory was short-lived and costly for Yang. Following the report, vice agents began to harass and threaten her. They pressured Yang to become an undercover informant, to turn in clients and friends. When Yang refused, law enforcement targeted her in repeated stings. With the assault in recent memory and a December court date scheduled, facing re-arrest would have meant prison time and possible deportation, not to mention the prospect of another attack, or worse.

Yang’s experience at the hands of law enforcement is an illustration of why sex workers are unlikely—and in some cases unable—to report crimes committed against them (especially by the police). Following her death, a report issued by the Queens District Attorney’s office denied any wrongdoing on the part of law enforcement.

The raid took place months after NYPD pledged to curb prostitution arrests. A 2017 report by the Urban Justice Center revealed that arrests of Asian-identified people for prostitution and unlicensed massages increased by 2700% from 2012 to 2016. Fully 87% of the arrests for unlicensed massages were of Asian migrant women.

Tragedies like this are enabled by bad laws that systematically disenfranchise immigrants and sex workers. Police raids are traumatic and violent, treating supposed victims as criminals. Arrests do not help, saddling defendants with court fees and criminal records that further limit their ability to find another job. HTICs, established in Queens Criminal Court in 2010 and later expanded to NYC’s other four boroughs, fail to identify trafficking survivors and neglect to provide workers with the services they need, such as employment, housing, education, and healthcare.

A report by the Yale School of Public Health found that courts increase harm by providing a way for ICE to target immigrants.

Criminalization of prostitution allows discrimination and government-sponsored violence to thrive. Yang Song’s tragic death brought these realities to light. In a world that pities, condemns, or erases them, sex workers continue to demand rights. Organizations like Red Canary Song and Womankind advocate for Asian sex workers and survivors of trafficking in New York. Red Canary Song held a beautiful vigil to honor Yang Song’s life on November 30 of this year.

Help support the rights and safety of all by visiting DSW’s Take Action page.

Marchers honor Yang Song at a vigil in 2018 and call for decriminalization to prevent more harm. (Photo: Emma Whitford/Hyphen magazine, 2019)

Yang Song’s family traveled to New York the month after her death in the hopes of gaining insight into the circumstances surrounding her death. Yang’s mother, Yumai Shi, and brother, Hai Song, are pictured in the office of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team’s office on 40th Road, across the street from where Yang fell. (Photo: Scott Heins/The Appeal, 2019)

DSW Joins NYC Activists To Educate the Next Generation of Social-Justice Lawyers on Decriminalization

November 6, 2019

Melissa Broudo joined fellow activists and attorneys for a panel discussion on the whats, whys, and hows of sex-work decriminalization. The panel was organized by the NYU Law School chapter of If/When/How—Lawyering for Reproductive Justice. Fellow guests included Tiffany Cabán, who is a career public defender, recent candidate for Queens District Attorney, and national organizer for the Working Families Party; TS Candii, committee steering member of DecrimNY and sex work activist; Jared Trujillo, staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society and steering committee member of DecrimNY; and Kate Zen, the co-founder and interim director of Red Canary Song. All speakers have a history advocating for marginalized communities in New York City, in particular, LGBTQ and TGNC folks, migrants, sex workers, and survivors.

The panelists brought a variety of skills, backgrounds, and experience to the panel, which led to an informed discussion articulating the compounding harms of current policies criminalizing sex work. Despite their diverse backgrounds, all five advocates vigorously emphasized that the decriminalization of sex work provides the best path toward decarceration, harm reduction, restorative justice, and community health and safety. The conversation included a history of the sex workers’ rights movement, the conflation of sex work with human trafficking, the push for “End Demand” (partial criminalization), and the exclusion of sex workers from the Me Too movement.

It was exciting to see activists come together, share their expertise, and educate the next generation of social justice lawyers on decriminalization. The panel lasted nearly two hours. After the discussion concluded, the audience was allowed to ask questions and stressed how appreciative they were to learn about these issues, so often misportrayed or overlooked. It’s time to start listening to sex workers.

DSW’s Melissa Broudo explains the difference between full decriminalization and partial criminalization.

Melissa Broudo of DSW and the SOAR Institute, Kate Zen of Red Canary Song, Tiffany Cabán from the Working Families Party, Jared Trujillo of Legal Aid Society, and TS Candii of DecrimNY (L to R).

DSW Joins Community Organizers at a Trans/Sex Workers Rights Mixer

October 4, 2019

The New York State Gender Diversity Coalition convened at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar to exchange ideas about how to support gender diversity, equality, and sex worker rights in New York. This new coalition of sex workers’ rights and LGBTQIA* activists highlights the important overlap between DSW’s mission and the rights and safety of the LGBTQ community.

The event was organized by The New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTAG) and The Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights (SOAR) Institute, co-directed by Melissa Broudo and Crystal DeBoise of DSW. NYTAG and SOAR have a veritable history of fighting for both of these communities in the New York area and beyond. DSW was honored and excited to join them at this event.

Activists march for sex-worker and trans rights in Stockholm, Sweden, in October 2019. (Photo: Twitter/SWARM)

DSW’s Melissa Broudo and Frances Steele join with the organizers and attendees of the Brooklyn event.

This alliance continues to be incredibly important to the policy we are striving towards. On October 2, LGBTQ advocates in Washington, DC, delivered a letter to DC Council members advocating for the full decriminalization of sex work on the grounds that it is “critical to the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ community.” There will be a hearing on October 17 in DC on the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. If passed, the bill will decriminalize sex work in our nation’s capital. Kaytlin Bailey will testify at the hearing.

Historic Prison Reform in NYC

September 5, 2019

DSW joined a crowd gathered outside NYC’s city hall to attend a hearing on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inner-borough jail expansion plan. Although the city council’s Criminal Justice committee had invited DSW’s Melissa Broudo to testify, she decided to let allies closer to the issue speak at the hearing. Nevertheless, we felt honored to participate in this historic moment in NYC’s criminal justice history. The hearing followed the City Planning Commission’s 9-3 vote to approve the mayor’s contested proposal, first laid out in 2017, pushing it into the final stage of the city’s land use review process.

The multi-billion-dollar plan would shutter Rikers Island, a sure victory for human rights and criminal justice reform in New York City, and follows efforts to reduce the city’s incarcerated population from 7,400 to 4,000 by 2026 using criminal justice reforms. De Blasio believes his plan will bring New York “one step closer to closing Rikers Island and creating a smaller, safer, fairer jail system … bringing people back to their communities and families,” helping to combat recidivism and mass incarceration. However, designs to construct new 1,150-bed jails in four of the city’s five boroughs have raised concerns from community members, social justice activists and borough presidents over the location of the new prisons, continued police abuse and an overall lack of engagement with communities in drafting the plan.

Close Rikers Now is a NYC grassroots campaign that has fought long and hard against a broken prison system in New York City and its history of violence and abuse against largely minority inmates. The organization supports the mayor’s plan, with caveats, while others, like No New Jails NYC, oppose it on the grounds that the new plan will replace one broken system with another. Brittany Williams, a community organizer for the organization, is quoted in The New York Times asserting that “the city has failed for decades to hold themselves accountable for how people are being treated once they are incarcerated.” There is also concern over the lack of legally binding mechanisms to ensure follow-through on the shuttering of Rikers, and the historic 75% decrease in the New York’s incarcerated population, after Mayor De Blasio leaves office. 

At the protests outside of city hall, DSW Project Manager Frances Steele stood with the No New Jails Coalition as they chanted “If they build them, they will fill them.” Sex workers’ rights are incredibly relevant to the issues raised by the current jail system debate in New York. DSW is encouraged by the decarceration efforts and community activism taking place across the city. We support the commitment to give New York City residents in all five boroughs the justice, health and safety they deserve and end mass incarceration.

Demonstrators from No New Jails NYC stand outside City Hall on Sept. 5 to protest Mayor DeBlasio’s borough-based jail system plan. (Photo: Frances Steele/DSW, 2019)

Charges were brought that capacities at the hearings were kept purposefully low to keep out protestors against the construction of the new prison system. (Photo: Elizabeth Kim/Instagram, 2019)

Nevertheless She Existed: Kaytlin Bailey Presents a Sex Worker From History

July 31, 2019

DSW’s Kaytlin Bailey participated in Nevertheless She Existed, a live show and podcast produced at Caveat Theater. She told the story of Phryne, a famous courtesan in the classical Greek period who defended herself against blasphemy charges by disrobing in front of the all-male jury and declaring her perfect body a gift from the gods. She won her case.

This show specifically highlighted the contribution sex workers have been making to their communities for literally all of human history. Junior Mintt reminded us what an undeniable powerhouse Josephine Baker was in her lifetime. Solange Azor talked about one of the founding mothers of the sex worker rights movement, Margo St. James, who created COYOTE, and Anna Bianco talked about the incredible achievements of Theodora, who became empress of Rome in 527 after spending some time in a brothel in the Roman Empire.

Kylie Holloway, Kaytlin Bailey, Junior Mintt, Anna Bianco, Solange Azor & Molly Gaebe at Caveat Theater perform for Nevertheless She Existed (from L to R, July 31, 2019).

Queer Liberation March: Pride Without Barriers in NYC

June 30, 2019

DSW attended the Queer Liberation March and political rally that followed on June 30, organized by the Reclaim Pride Coalition to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The march took place on the same day as the NYC Pride Parade, which also hosted World Pride this year, but without corporate sponsors or police officers present. The Reclaim Pride Coalition, represented in a WBUR interview by their attorney and former executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union Normal Siegel, wants to ensure that Stonewall50 lives up to the original spirit and intent of the first marchers in the June 1969 uprising: "the freedom to be who you are and to take pride in that." The message of the Queer Liberation March is to stand "in solidarity with other oppressed groups, to demand social and economic justice worldwide."

Reclaim Pride Coalition Art Build

The Wednesday before Pride, the coalition hosted an art build in which all kinds of activists got their heads and hearts together to make art, signs, posters and banners for the Queer Liberation March and Rally. The build united criminalized bodies against corporate control, erasure, and violence and provided an understanding of the breadth of the movement and the identities for whom it holds significance. DSW Communications Director Kaytlin Bailey attended and collaborated on two signs representing our message: “Listen to sex workers” and “Prostitution isn’t the problem, it’s the patriarchy.”

The Rally: Rights and Safety for All

Well before the march started, crowds had gathered at Sheridan Square, holding signs and sporting black, pink and gold attire. The energy and love in the streets was breathtaking. The march took place along the historic root, up Sixth Avenue and into Central Park, where a First Amendment political rally took place from 1-4pm, addressing the biases, homophobia and stereotyping of the LGBTQIA community that persist today. As the crowd walked up town, a moment of silence was held at 11am to commemorate those in the LGBTQIA* community lost to violence, stigma, racism, HIV/AIDS, and lack of access to safety or health care, particularly trans women of color.

The coalition wants to highlight that, though progress has been made, the queer and trans communities, especially individuals of color, are still stereotyped, harassed and criminalized on a day-to-day basis. The march was open to the public, without sidewalk barriers or police presence. It concluded on the great lawn of Central Park. The rally hosted speakers, performers and a display of the artwork that community members and allies had made for the event. Speakers included Larry Kramer and Jason Walker from ACT UP, Black Trans Media Representatives Sasha Alexander and Olympia Sudan, and many more. DSW feels so privileged to have been able to participate and see the wonderful community this march created.

Queer Liberation March route (reclaimpridenyc.org)

Marchers on Sixth Avenue in NYC. (photo: Leandro Justin)

DSW's Communications Director Kaytlin Bailey stands with all criminalized bodies—immigrants, trans people, black & brown people, the LGBTQ community & sex workers—at the Queer Liberation March on the Great Lawn at Central Park (June 30, 2019).

“Gay Panic” Defense Can No Longer Be Used to Excuse Murder, a Win for Trans Sex Workers

Just before the June 30, 2019, kickoff of the World Pride March in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed A2707, a new law that bans the "gay and transgender panic" defense from being used in murder cases prosecuted in New York State. The panic defense has historically been utilized to lessen charges in the case that the defendant alleges his or her violent actions with in response to the unwanted advances of someone of the same sexual orientation. The defense has also been used in the murder trials of transgender victims. New York is the sixth state to ban the use of such a defense, the first being California in 2014.

In 1944, 19-year-old Lucien Carr used it to excuse the murder of 33-year-old David Kammerer, whom he stabbed in Riverside Park and dumped into the Hudson River. Carr alleged that Kammerer had been following him around the country making continual, unwanted sexual advances. His killing was depicted in the media as an honorable response to such a threat. Though convicted of murder, Carr pled guilty to a lessened charge of manslaughter and served only two years. The defense has been used dozens of times since then, as an outgrowth of the traditional legal doctrine of "provocation," or that the victim is partially responsible for a crime by eliciting it through some offensive action (Suk Gersen, 2019).

The memory of institutionalized violence against the LGBTQIA community lingered as the world commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots on June 30. In 2018, a federal bill to ban the "gay and trans panic" defense nationwide died in a U.S. House committee. The New York bill is a step towards protecting the health, safety, and very humanity of every individual in the United States, but we still have a long way to go.

The #DecriminalizeSexWork movement has played a vital role in speaking out about the criminalization of trans and queer bodies, especially for women of color and those involved in the sex trade. Grassroots activism has been vital to the passage of this bill. We are fighting against the unjustifiable deaths of those who are most vulnerable, such as Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in her jail cell on June 7 at Rikers, where she was being held, unable to make a $500 bail resulting from a prostitution arrest in August 2017. Polanco is the tenth transgender woman of color to be found dead in the U.S. in 2019. Decriminalization is necessary to combat state-sponsored violence, such as that condoned by the "gay panic" defense. Our path forward is to focus on public health and harm reduction and to stop the murders of innocent people.

After signing A2707 to ban “gay/trans panic” legal defense in NY, Gov. Cuomo marched in the New York City Pride parade. (photo: Brittany Newman/NYT, 2019)